NATALIA BONIFACCI MEETS SVEVA ALVITI AT THE HOTEL COSTES IN PARIS, A FEW DAYS FROM THE PREMIER OF HER FIRST IMPORTANT FILM.
BEAUTIFUL SVEVA DIVIDES HER LIFE BETWEEN PARIS AND ROME. INTELLIGENT, LIKEABLE, FRIENDLY AND RADIANT, SHE BEAT THE COMPETITION FROM MORE THAN TWO HUNDRED CANDIDATES FOR THE PART, GETTING THE LEADING ROLE IN THE NEW FILM FROM DIRECTOR LISA AZUELOS – DALIDA: A PORTRAYAL OF THE TUMULTUOUS LIFE OF ONE OF THE GREATEST VOICES OF ALL TIME.
SVEVA MOVES HER HANDS AS SHE DANCES BETWEEN INTENSELY SERIOUS MOMENTS AND BURSTS OF LAUGHTER. SHE OPENS UP TO NATALIA FOR REDMILK, SIPPING CHAMPAGNE AND TELLING HER STORY.
If you had to explain your work to a child, what would you say?
I tell stories. Sometimes they are more entertaining, sometimes more tragic: I recount something about life through my characters.
You have been a model for many years. When did you decide to become an actress? I know you studied acting in New York.
I moved to New York when I was seventeen and with the money I earnt from modeling I paid for the Susan Batson acting school, which is the best in NYC. I realised quite quickly that I wanted to be an actress, or to find something that went beyond being a model. Even though I really enjoyed the work, I wanted to communicate more. I started acting almost for fun; I continued and, gradually, life brought me to where I am today.
Then there was a change, wasn’t there? From New York, you decided to go back to Rome…
Exactly. To act. Also to see if I could “conquer” Italian cinema. I got a part in a small art film entitled Cam Girl , which dealt with on-line prostitution, so, an interesting theme for a woman to tackle. What struck me most about the project was that the entire team, including the director [Mirca Viola – Ed.] was all female. After a year in Italy, I went back to America to continue working as a model. Also, I wanted to stop acting…
Because it was a very complicated world and difficult to manage. All in all, it was also a rather chauvinistic world. Besides, I didn’t find any interesting parts…
Chauvinistic, in what sense? A working environment of false promises?
Of false promises, no. No-one has ever had this type of approach towards me. I always put myself forward in a very professional manner and I believe that this attitude helps to put the brake on certain types of advances. I never allow the impression that it could go any further. Rather, as a question of work opportunities, I didn’t find characters I was interested in playing. When I start on a project, I give it my all and it must involve me heart and soul, as happened with Dalida, which captivated me totally for a year and still consumes me.
Your Italian agent called you to audition for Dalida while you were in the States…
I knew about Dalida and her songs, thanks to my family. But I didn’t know the character very well, since I no longer believed in working as an actress…
Because I didn’t get enough parts, and I didn’t find them interesting, either. I didn’t feel motivated to really give it my all. I had a clothing line with my sister [the stylist Sara Alviti – Ed.] that was going really well. I continued to work as a model, so I’d carved out my place. But my agent kept on calling me for this part. After lots of saying no, I said him, “I’ll do it, but I’m not coming to Italy; I’ll send a self tape audition! This is the best I can do because I can’t speak French, I can’t dance and I can’t sing. Dalida is an icon; it will be really difficult to get this part – almost impossible”! I prepared this self tape and they continued (six or seven times) to ask my agent for more of them, sending me other scenes and songs to interpret. For the first time I took up the challenge, without being obsessed with getting the part at all costs, but wanting to give something. I have to say that the words of Dalida and her songs have always touched me deeply. I read them and I said to myself, “I understand the fragility of this woman. It’s surprising, but it’s almost as if she’s speaking to me”. Also, I was living through a complicated time in my life.
In the end, they asked me to prepare a song and they paid for my ticket to come to Paris.
You couldn’t sing….
Right. They sent me various songs to choose from, telling me to prepare one of them. And so, I chose a special song.
Je Suis Malade…
Exactly! I read the lyrics and they really moved me. I felt it was more a poem than a song; I decided to concentrate on these lyrics, injecting into them all my knowledge and my experience of life, even the painful moments. The song talks about a man and talks about love.
Were you afraid?
Yes. But it was a fear I had made my own… I feel that in my place Dalida would have been afraid. Fear can sometimes help. It makes you concentrate and brings out the true emotions. At the audition I started to sing with playback… I could sing at the top of my lungs…at which point my body had somehow taken on the shape of the song; I had become the song.
Was it different compared to the rehearsals…?
Absolutely. At the audition I had the lights shining in my face; I couldn’t see anyone; I was alone on the stage, as if I were singing for myself. At the end of the song I was in tears; my body and my voice were trembling. It had been a powerful emotion. Then there was a moment’s silence. I didn’t move, attempting to recover from this emotion, that was bigger than me. The director [Lisa Azuelos – Ed.] was moved. The entire production team was crying. She came up to me; I looked at her and I said to her, “Je suis Dalida.” And she replied, “Je sais!”
If I’m not mistaken, you didn’t speak French…
No, I didn’t speak it at all! I couldn’t sing and so I wasn’t hoping to get the part. I did the audition just for myself. I firmly believe that expressing ones own emotions, through art, helps to heal some of the pain suffered over the course of our lives. Taking part in this film has helped me a lot. It deals with the relationship between Dalida and her father, with love…
What relationship do you have with your father?
A wonderful relationship, but he travelled a lot for work. I remember missing a paternal figure.
When were you told you had got the part?
I felt immediately completely at one with the director; something she also felt. Lisa is a very sensitive woman who knew how to comprehend and describe the character perfectly. Sometimes biopics can be superficial; personally, I sometimes find them boring and in many cases they are well-known stories. A month later I knew they wanted to offer me the part. They were waiting for the go-ahead from Dalida’s brother, Orlando [the pen name of Bruno Gigliotti, played by Riccardo Scamarcio in the film – Ed.] who signed over all rights to the songs and the story of Dalida. He really wanted to tell the story of his sister. Convincing him was the most difficult part.
He was also the producer…
Exactly. So, I had to do a second audition, live, still with the song Je Suis Malade, to convince Orlando, with whom I still have a wonderful relationship: we had dinner together yesterday evening. The final yes arrived after a three month wait. He gave me lots of advice during shooting and helped my interpretation such a lot by describing to me the true essence of his sister.
How did you feel? It’s your first important part.
I said to myself, “My dream has been realised, now the real work starts!” [she laughs – Ed.] I was given a French language coach who was with me for six hours a day. It was very complicated because I was starting from scratch. Then I had a singing coach and one for dancing. We started to work on every aspect of Dalida. It took seven months of preparation and three of filming. During the film you can follow the evolution of the singer over the course of the years. When she arrived in France, Dalida was more or less the same age as me [Sveva is 32 – Ed.] and her story finished with her death.
I guess the most important meeting of your career, to date, was the one with Lisa Azuelos…
Absolutely. It gave me a huge opportunity. Giving an opportunity like that to a young actress, for a film with a large budget, for a project that was very dear to her, is not something everyone would do. “Tackling” an icon of that kind, entrusting everything to me, was a very courageous act.
How did you feel when you finished shooting the film?
We were in Morocco, although the scene was set in India. I was acting a dialog on the embarrassment Dalida felt about becoming a celebrity, unable to comprehend her own success, and feeling that she didn’t deserve it. It is one of the most powerful scenes we filmed. When we had finished the film, it was a wonderful moment. The team was enormous. The applause started and went on for I don’t know how long. I was given the last clapper board with the signatures of all those who had worked on the film: from the stage technician to the director of photography.
From what you’re telling me, it seems there was a lot of trust in you on the part of the director. What approach did she take when she was directing you?
Both with her and with Orlando, we did most of the work before we started filming. We prepared the character together. There was trust; there was no right nor wrong. I became the character. They gave me the freedom to be Sveva through Dalida, without imitating her.
What have you got planned next?
I’m getting some offers. At the moment I have the possibility to choose, in the sense that the next project I want to take part in must be something I really believe in, to devote myself to, as I did with the character of Dalida. I’m considering some Italian and French projects. After all the time devoted to the film, it was pretty traumatic to stop filming… so, for now, I’m taking some time out for me.
…you were her. You were exposed for a long time to her emotional baggage…
Exactly. It was like going under cover. The film is full of emotion, of narrative, of humanity and fragility. For the film, I went and touched the deepest strings of myself and of Dalida. No-one can tell me if what I have done is right or wrong. Orlando saw the film and is completely satisfied and I am incredibly happy with it. I’m proud of my work.
Are you very self critical?
Very. When I saw the film for the first time, however, I experienced it with some detachment, and I cried more than once. [She laughs – Ed.]
What is your relationship with beauty?
It depends on the day, like all women, I think. Some days I pay more attention to myself and so I look at myself in the mirror. On other days, however, I get ready in a hurry and I don’t pay much attention. I think that in life beauty can help as much as it can hinder you, depending on how you make use of it.
What has being a model given you and what has it taken away?
It’s been a sort of “university of life”: I’ve met a lot of people, I’ve been all over the world, I’ve lived away from home, on my own, since I was very young, and I started to earn my living very early on. At the same time, it has taken away something of the lightheartedness of being a “little girl”, the fact of living without responsibilities.
In the light of the experience you have now, if you could give some advice to yourself as a fifteen-year-old, what would you say?
“You must know how to wait. Patience is the most important thing”. [She laughs – Ed]. I was very impatient: I wanted everything and straight away. I would also tell myself that, “If you prepare, study and really believe in something, the results will come”.
What has Italy given you? Is there something about being Italian that has given you the edge compared to other cultures? When you leave your own country for several years, you tend to appreciate some aspects of your own culture only when you “live” the lack of them…
I adore the enormous passion that we Italians put into anything we do, and I also believe that we have a great culture – and I’m not talking about a culture of politics, art, or who knows what! I’m referring to the culture of “living well.” [She laughs – Ed]. We know how to enjoy life!
What is your best quality and what is your biggest flaw? And what quality do you most appreciate in other people?
I always like to give myself a challenge; I throw myself into things one hundred percent and I’m an absolute perfectionist. What do I like least? Sometimes I let myself get too carried away by my emotions. I should be more detached. But I believe it is also one of my strong points. It’s a double-edged sword: both strength and fragility. I love modesty and generosity in other people; being yourself, also with those you don’t know. I dislike people who are false, who wear a mask, or want to pretend to be someone else.
What is your next dream?
To have a family!
Photo by Thierry Lebraly
This interview has been edited and condensed.